Janet Voight, 57, is an associate curator of zoology at the Field Museum, specializing in cephalopod mollusks. In the course of her deep-sea research, she’s witnessed previously undiscovered octopus feeding behavior and placed wood planks at the bottom of the ocean to study wood-boring clams and flatworms. —Julia Thiel
I grew up in Davenport, Iowa, and I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college. I had gotten a bachelor’s degree. I had the boyfriend and the cat and all that stuff and—I wasn’t happy.
Then the cat disappeared, so I was really broken up. And the boyfriend and I broke up—that was OK. So I was like, why don’t I go to graduate school? I applied where all deep-sea marine biologists go, the University of Arizona in Tuscon, which has a very strong ecology and evolution program. Right when I was finishing up, this job opened up.
There’s only like five submersibles in the world that carry scientists to the bottom. We have the Alvin, the French have the Nautile, Japan has the Shinkai, and Russia has two Mirs. The Alvin weighs—I think the stripped weight is 18 tons. So you have to have a ship that’s capable of handling it. You have to have fuel for the big ship, you have to have people running the big ship 24 hours a day.
I’ve had the pleasure of eight dives in the Alvin and I think 15 in what used to be the Johnson-Sea-Link out of Harbor Branch in Florida. I had one dive right near the mouth of the Mississippi River. On the way up there were so many bioluminescent animals in the water you could’ve read a newspaper right there in the front. It was just like you couldn’t believe there were these shapes out there making the light.
[On a dive in 2003] I was chief scientist. That means that you write the grant, you get the grant funded, and you coordinate with ship’s scheduling for when this cruise is actually going to happen. It’s one dive a day, so if as the chief scientist you pick the wrong place to dive, you’re dead meat. Because it’s expensive.
So finally I schedule myself a dive. And we got down there and we were lost so bad. All of the sudden we were in this vertical landscape and we couldn’t get our acoustic signals to navigate. There must have been cliffs 20 meters high and it’s dark and you can only see about ten feet ahead of you.
So the pilot is saying, Dang, you know, a chief scientist should never go back with an empty basket. All of the sudden I start going, oh my goodness, I really messed up, I haven’t got anything in the basket. The batteries are running down and then the pilot says, I think I see an octopus.
We drove up and there were like a dozen octopuses climbing up these three extinct chimneys covered with serpulids, which are a type of worm. Some of these octopuses were hanging off a serpulid tube with one arm and reaching into this haze of amphipods with the others and, like, taking a big sweep with their arms, taking all the tips together and then slowly deflating their web, which they use like a cast net. You could almost see them swallowing. That’s when I suddenly realized what they were doing was catching amphipods on the fly.
I’ve named 20 species of wood-boring clams. You wouldn’t think there’s 20 species of wood-boring clams in the world. Trees fall in the forest and some of them wash out to sea. The wood that sinks to the bottom of the ocean is colonized by clams that bore into it. They just spend their lives scraping away at wood that sunk to the bottom of the ocean. And this group of species can only survive on the sunken wood.
I found the first flatworms to live in the deep sea. I could show you books that say there are no flatworms in the deep ocean. Well, if you trawl—you throw a net off the ship and drag it—of course you don’t think there are any. By using Alvin, I recovered six new species of those wood-boring clams.
The latest one I’ve described is from the middle of nowhere, where French oceanographers had documented that nothing happens. They put down a piece of wood to document that nothing happens and like 200 clams settled in 300 days or something. Does that blow you away or what?
The question is, what’s out there in the middle of the ocean? We know more about the back side of the moon from the rover Mars than about what’s covering 67 percent of our planet, the deep sea. We just don’t know what’s there.